LURE OF THE LA­GOON

Just be­yond the tourist crush of Venice, writes Josephine McKenna, the sto­ried is­lands of the Vene­tian La­goon are a trove of age-old tra­di­tions, ar­chi­tec­tural trea­sures and culi­nary gems all their own.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - News - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY SU­SAN WRIGHT

Just be­yond the tourist crush of Venice, the sto­ried is­lands of the Vene­tian La­goon are a trove of age-old tra­di­tions, ar­chi­tec­tural trea­sures and culi­nary gems.

D Dawn breaks over the Vene­tian La­goon in breath­tak­ing si­lence. In a few hours, Pi­azza San Marco will fill with great swirls of pi­geons and tourists bear­ing selfie sticks, and the Grand Canal will be as busy as a peak-hour free­way. But at this hour, on a jetty off the is­land of Bu­rano, all is calm, and there’s barely a ripple on the wa­ter as we set off with Lele D’Este in his shabby fish­ing boat. “It’s so beau­ti­ful here,” D’Este says as he kills the en­gine a few kilo­me­tres north of Bu­rano and throws a net into the opaque wa­ter. “It’s truly heaven.”

Caught be­tween the Ital­ian main­land and the Adri­atic Sea, the 550-square-kilo­me­tre la­goon stretches from Jesolo in the north-east to Chiog­gia at its south­ern tip. Dot­ted with 118 is­lands, it’s a mar­vel of na­ture and hu­man en­deav­our, hav­ing evolved from the es­tu­ar­ine la­goons of the Ro­man era well be­fore Venice emerged as an am­bi­tious mar­itime power in the 10th cen­tury.

Like the sto­ried city, the la­goon is recog­nised as a World Her­itage site of crit­i­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal sig­nif­i­cance. Flooded by the salty wa­ters of the Adri­atic, its shal­low marshes are a haven for ma­rine life and birds, but they’re in­creas­ingly vul­ner­a­ble to ris­ing sea lev­els, pol­lu­tion, dredg­ing and ero­sion.

D’Este, 58, has been fish­ing these wa­ters since he was a teenager. Apart from a few ce­falo, the la­goon’s grey mul­let, the fish aren’t bit­ing this morn­ing. He slips over­board, gath­ers a few crabs and mus­sels from the muddy shal­lows, and we head home to Bu­rano.

Con­sid­ered the hub of the la­goon’s north­ern ar­chi­pel­ago, Bu­rano is criss-crossed by nar­row canals flanked by rain­bow-coloured houses. Ac­cord­ing to leg­end, the tech­ni­colour pal­ette was meant to guide fish­er­men home through heavy fog. The lean­ing bell tower of the Church of San Martino – home to a Tiepolo paint­ing – adds to the is­land’s whimsy.

Fewer than 3,000 peo­ple live here. It’s the kind of place where peo­ple sleep with their doors open in sum­mer and ev­ery­one greets each other by first name. As I re­turn to the port with D’Este, tourists are spilling from a crowded va­poretto. Res­i­dents are chat­ting in the pi­azza or buy­ing S-shaped bis­cotti known as essi. Laun­dry hangs from the windows. Cats laze in the sun.

“We’re a fam­ily,” says 25-year-old waiter En­rico Rosetti of the is­land com­mu­nity as he heads to Al Gatto Nero, the town’s most fa­mous trat­to­ria, to be­gin his work­ing day. “We have to take care of our­selves and pro­tect our way of life be­cause there are so few of us left. There’s an­other men­tal­ity here.”

For cen­turies the town has been known for fish­ing and lace­mak­ing. Nil­via Costan­tini is one of the few is­lan­ders who still work with nee­dle and thread. The 79-year-old ar­ti­san sits on her stoop and em­broi­ders a tube-shaped tombolo pil­low.

“When I got mar­ried, I told my sis­ter I wanted to learn how to sew,” the great-grand­mother tells us when

we stop to say hello. “My pas­sion took hold of me like a drug. If pos­si­ble, I work ev­ery day, even Sun­days.”

Bu­rano’s lace work, which dates back to the 16th cen­tury, was once as prized as the hand-blown glass made on the nearby is­land of Mu­rano. Costan­tini takes or­ders from around the world for her del­i­cate bap­tismal out­fits and baby booties. One of her table­cloths sold for €8,000, she says. But there are fewer than a dozen lace­mak­ers left here now and Costan­tini says cheap im­ports threaten the craft’s sur­vival. “Tourists don’t ap­pre­ci­ate it,” she says.

“If this tra­di­tion dis­ap­pears, it will be a tragedy.”

At Gatto Nero, the lunchtime ta­bles are full and there’s a queue of din­ers at the door. Owner Rug­gero Bovo shares some kitchen se­crets as he tosses fresh la­goon shrimp in a pan with onions, rocket, smoked ri­cotta and a splash of wine. “You add a drop of Worces­ter­shire sauce. Only one. You add two and you’re ru­ined,” he says as the per­spi­ra­tion glis­tens on his fore­head.

Bovo dreamed of study­ing mu­sic un­til his father or­dered him to get a job. He took over the trat­to­ria in 1965 when it was a run­down fish­er­men’s haunt. One night he ended up in the kitchen and he’s been there ever since. Fish­er­men bring their catch di­rectly to his door. “There’s no timetable – it can be day or night,” he says. “When they ar­rive, I have the same sen­sa­tion as one who loves art or mu­sic. I im­me­di­ately start think­ing about how I’m go­ing to cook it. Work­ing as a chef is not a job, it’s a pas­sion.”

Bovo and his wife, Lu­cia, have served princes, pres­i­dents and Hol­ly­wood roy­alty. Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola, Brad Pitt and other A-lis­ters have stepped from wa­ter taxis onto the jetty out­side Gatto Nero’s front door. Jamie Oliver fine-tuned a risotto recipe here dur­ing one of his rov­ing TV episodes.

“Through the restau­rant I have given some­thing to the whole world and that gives me great sat­is­fac­tion,” says Bovo.

The trat­to­ria al­ways has a ta­ble for the Bu­ranelli, who ban­ter with Bovo in di­alect when­ever he emerges from the kitchen, fer­ry­ing the likes of risotto alla Bu­ranella stud­ded with chunks of a white fish called ghiozzi, cut­tle­fish Vene­tian style, and freshly caught sea bass served as branzino al forno. From a long list, his som­me­lier son, Mas­si­m­il­iano, rec­om­mends wines from lo­cal pro­duc­ers – a blend of chardon­nay, treb­biano, sau­vi­gnon and Véneto’s gar­ganega grapes from Giuseppe Quintarelli, or Ze­nato’s Lu­gana Ris­erva, made from treb­biano – to match the catch of the day.

On the neigh­bour­ing is­land of Maz­zorbo, linked to Bu­rano by a wooden foot­bridge, it’s hard to spot a tourist or a sou­venir shop. So it’s a sur­prise to find the chic Venissa re­sort in a walled vine­yard, once part of a 14th-cen­tury con­vent. Gian­luca Bisol, who hails from a long line of prosecco pro­duc­ers in>

Val­dob­bi­adene, dis­cov­ered the over­grown vine­yard on a visit to the la­goon in 2002, and was as­ton­ished to find rem­nants of the rare golden grape va­ri­ety dorona di Venezia.

While the Véneto re­gion has a rep­u­ta­tion for pro­duc­ing fine wines, wine­mak­ing in the la­goon all but died out, and Venissa rep­re­sents part of a re­vival. Bisol re­stored the vine­yard and sur­round­ing build­ings, and from 80 orig­i­nal vines, he and his son Mat­teo prop­a­gated and planted 4,000 dorona vines, and pro­duced the first vin­tage in 2010. As well as the small re­sort, they have a smart restau­rant and an os­te­ria over­look­ing the vines, and re­cently added gue­strooms in apart­ments in Bu­rano, un­der the name Casa Bu­rano.

Mat­teo, the re­sort’s mar­ket­ing man­ager, pours a glass of the golden wine and de­scribes the com­plex­ity it de­rives from the salt in the soil and the vine­yard’s sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to sea­sonal flood­ing known as ac­qua alta. “Once ev­ery three or four years, the vine­yard is com­pletely flooded and a lot of salt is left in the soil but also many micro­organ­isms,” Mat­teo ex­plains. “It’s a phe­nom­e­non that re­ally makes this wine unique.”

He also wants “to bring to the la­goon a cui­sine that is cut­ting-edge”. In the kitchen of Venissa’s one-star restau­rant is one of Italy’s most promis­ing chefs. Francesco Brutto was named Italy’s best young chef for 2017 by L’Espresso mag­a­zine and re­turned re­cently for his sec­ond stint at Venissa. Orig­i­nally from Tre­viso, the 28-year-old cham­pi­ons the pro­duce of the la­goon, in­clud­ing the small cas­traure ar­ti­choke, grown on the es­tate, which he halves, pan-fries and serves with mar­i­nated egg yolk and calamint leaves, and a lo­cal fish called go, served with spaghet­tini, saf­fron cream and basil.

Across a nar­row stretch of wa­ter from Maz­zorbo to the north-east lies the is­land of Tor­cello, where the Ro­mans sought refuge from At­tila the Hun and the Vene­tians fled a bar­bar­ian in­va­sion in the 5th cen­tury. Tor­cello evolved into a thriv­ing trad­ing port with sev­eral thou­sand in­hab­i­tants un­til malaria swept through the area in the 12th cen­tury. These days it’s a sparsely pop­u­lated land­scape of empty fields and or­chards; it’s hard to imag­ine this sleepy back­wa­ter was once the most vi­brant is­land in the la­goon and a ri­val to Venice it­self.

A 10-minute stroll from the Tor­cello ferry stop is a de­serted pi­azza and, as­ton­ish­ingly, one of Italy’s old­est artis­tic trea­sures. The Cathe­dral of Santa Maria As­sunta, orig­i­nally founded in 639 AD, is con­sid­ered the la­goon’s old­est Byzan­tine-Ro­manesque mon­u­ment. The bell tower dates back to the 11th cen­tury and has sweep­ing views across to Bu­rano and Maz­zorbo and the rest of the la­goon. In­side, its renowned Byzan­tine-era mo­saics in­clude a daz­zling Madonna and child in the apse, with the 12 apos­tles lined up at her feet in ado­ra­tion, and a riv­et­ing mo­saic of the Last Judge­ment, graph­i­cally con­trast­ing the con­se­quences of good and evil on the west wall of the church.

Just as im­prob­a­bly, the near-de­serted is­land is home to one of the re­gion’s most no­table restau­rants. Lo­canda Cipri­ani was opened in 1934 by Giuseppe Cipri­ani, founder of the fa­mous Vene­tian ho­tel on Gi­udecca Is­land, af­ter he fell in love with Tor­cello. “There were only 200 peo­ple on the is­land. There was no elec­tric­ity or gas – he cre­ated it out of noth­ing,” says Cipri­ani’s grand­son, Boni­fa­cio Brass, who runs the six-room inn.

Ernest Hem­ing­way stayed here and Ge­orge Clooney has been known to drop in for a bite. De­spite its rus­tic en­trance, Lo­canda Cipri­ani serves clas­sic dishes with dis­creet ser­vice in a lush gar­den set­ting. “We of­fer sim­ple cook­ing based on qual­ity in­gre­di­ents and tra­di­tion,” Brass says. “If we took away the menu to­mor­row, there would be a rev­o­lu­tion be­cause they>

want the dishes that we al­ways do.” Chef Cris­tian An­gi­olin serves the likes of tagli­olini verdi grati­nati, cre­ated by the founder, and San Pi­etro alla Car­lina, John Dory served with tomato and ca­pers. There’s a list of about 60 wines, most from the Véneto and Fri­uli re­gions.

On the south side of Bu­rano lies the is­land of

San Francesco del De­serto, or St Fran­cis of the Desert. Hid­den be­hind a wall of cy­press trees and mar­itime pines, it’s easy to miss it. Mamed af­ter St Fran­cis of As­sisi, who stopped here in 1220 on his re­turn from the Holy Land, the four-hectare is­land has an air of mys­tique There are no ferry ser­vices, shops or restau­rants on this lit­tle gem. The best way to dis­cover it is to slide in silently by oar.

It’s home to a small group of Fran­cis­can monks, who ob­serve a vow of si­lence – un­less they’re shar­ing the is­land’s colour­ful his­tory with the hand­ful of tourists who make their way here by pri­vate boat or wa­ter taxi. As we pull up, one of the monks waves as he sails past us on his way to Bu­rano for a news­pa­per and a cof­fee. His col­league, Friar Felice, leads me and a dozen pilgrims through the monastery’s 15th-cen­tury clois­ter, telling tales of a plague that dev­as­tated the com­mu­nity in the 14th cen­tury and the oc­cu­pa­tion of Napoleon’s troops cen­turies later. “This was the small chapel where St Fran­cis prayed,” Friar Felice says. “When­ever I come here, it’s like the first time.

The pres­ence of St Fran­cis is here.”

From San Francesco del De­serto, we head to the pop­u­lar glass­mak­ing is­land of Mu­rano on a va­poretto now loaded with sight­seers. Ar­ti­sans have pro­duced glass here for more than 700 years, though that legacy is un­der threat from cheap Asian im­ports and ris­ing costs. The is­land, com­pris­ing seven islets, is most pic­turesque in the early morn­ings be­fore daytrip­pers mount their as­sault on the is­land’s smaller ver­sion of the Grand Canal and its pas­tel-coloured palazzi.

De­spite the daily on­slaught, Mu­rano’s com­mu­nity life re­mains firmly fo­cused on the art of glass­mak­ing. First-time vis­i­tors flock to the for­naci to see glass be­ing moulded from a fiery bub­ble, or visit the

Museo del Vetro, or browse in a hand­ful of shops stock­ing fine-qual­ity glass­ware. Oth­ers mar­vel at the Church of Santa Maria e San Donato, known for a 12th-cen­tury Byzan­tine mo­saic floor that ri­vals those in St Mark’s Basil­ica.

The best food on Mu­rano is served at Ac­quas­tanca, a stylish eatery es­tab­lished by Gio­vanna Ar­can­geli and her sis­ter-in-law and chef, Ca­te­rina Na­son, in 2012. It’s in a for­mer bak­ery on Fon­da­menta Manin along one of Mu­rano’s main canals. The pair, both na­tives of Mu­rano, rely on the day’s catch for dishes such as tagli­olini con le sep­pie nere or sarde in saor, a clas­sic Vene­tian dish of sar­dines fresh from the la­goon cooked with onions and pine nuts. “We want to make clients feel at home,” Ar­can­geli says. “We cook typ­i­cal Vene­tian dishes just like our mothers used to do it.”

CANAL PLUS

Top, from left: Bu­rano’s trade­mark colour­ful houses; the is­land of Mu­rano.

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